Ah, yes, the question of all questions in the MMO world right now – how do you make a game that is challenging, but not so frustrating that you end up throwing your mouse (or worse) across the room in frustration.
Game designers are always trying to find the limit of how long players will stay with something that’s difficult before expecting to see progress. Go to any MMO forum and you’re bound to see a thread or 12 that debate this very issue. But while players will discuss it to no end, you rarely see any specific comment about it by those in the industry. Sure, they tweak and adjust the games in order to address the balance between challenge and frustration, but rarely expound on it.
So it was curious to say the least when Brenlo and co-host lifted the cork right out of the bottle during their discussion of the Vanguard Producer’s Letter. Here’s the transcript (thanks to this thread at Silky Venom), but I highly recommend listening to it. Zip over to the 32 minute mark for the Vanguard piece. (I bolded certain parts)
She: They’re talking about making the death penalty not so severe, which I’ve heard is big a controversial topic…
He: It is a big contro – oh, sorry – ah well, you know.. that game is an interesting game, ahh… interesting, interesting game *old man’s voice* we can do many psychological studies on the impact of that game *normal voice* but that’s a hardcore crowd, it’s a crowd that kinda grew into the MMO back in the old days of Everquest. You know, a lot of those people are the faithfuls from the early days of Everquest when the game WAS very difficult. What some people call a challenge, others call frustration and that’s kinda why these games have evolved to remove some of those frustrations for the mass audience and Vanguard is gonna logically have to follow that route as well, they’re going to have to remove those frustrations.
She: Or they’re not gonna see any new blood.
He: Right. And I know as much you guys love your game and you want it to be your game – in order for the game to grow, you have to make it appeal to as many people as possible. And I’m not saying that it’s gonna become a WoW and I’m not saying it’s going to maintain its Vanguardyness or whatever you wanna call it-
She: The Vanguardyness
He: – but they have to do things to try to allow other people to play and one of those is – that’s a very steep death penalty in that game and making that a little friendlier can get some other people interested, because it is a huge expansive world with a lot of content, lots of challenges, a beautiful art style and we WANT people to enjoy that.
She: We do, we do.
He: We do, we do.
She: Very much so. Well, they have a whole list of stuff here that they’re looking to add in, evaluating for change and improvement as the wording is here -
He: But, check out Thom’s podcast, give them your feedback -
She: His Producer’s Letter…
He: Thom’s Producer’s Letter, yeah. Thom’s doing his own podcast, it’s the Thom Therazzas “I eat donuts podcast”.
He: What was that, Cat?
She: *muffled* I hope they didn’t get any of that. *laughs*
He: Cat says she hopes she’s not recording that one.
This is just a snippet, and it follows Brenlo’s impersonation of the old, crochety, EQ gamer, which is a whole other blog entry.
There are several things I found to be surprisingly interesting. First of all, from the comments, they seem to feel that the death penalty in Vanguard is “steep.” For argument’s sake, let’s look at what the death penalty actually is.
If you die in Vanguard, you leave a tombstone at the point of death. Any gear you have on that’s not soulbound is left on the stone, and you lose some experience. If you can get back to your tombstone, you can loot it for your gear plus much of your lost experience. But you can also summon it at any altar, which gives you back your gear but you don’t get the exp. In all my 50 levels of playing, doing plenty of soloing and dungeon crawling, I have not had a time where I worried about dying, and believe me, I’ve taken plenty of chances. Steep would be rotting corpses, lost gear, (stolen gear!), and multi-night corpse recoveries. I endured all of those in Everquest. Vanguard is not Everquest.
It’s arguable whether the death penalty is actually steep in Vanguard. I’d argue that it’s not, but that’s not the real meat of the podcast discussion. What is most curious is that they seem to think that the death penalty is the reason why subscriber numbers are so low. At least, that’s what I inferred from the ultimatim that old, grouchy, gamers of Vanguard need to get used to a milder death penalty or we won’t see any new blood.
Look, the death penalty isn’t why people left Vanguard. People left because they couldn’t run the game, even on an 8800 with Vista. They left because they’d spend days and days trying to kill thousands of ants, click things, and do handstands to spawn the ant queen, only to find out that it wasn’t working/wasn’t in the game. They left because after having two consecutive double experience weekends, they had bumped into the edge of content, and discovered that there was a lot that was completely unfinished. They left because they were falling through the world, they were stuck in combat, they saw rampant hacks and duping, and they got tired of seeing something as simple as a door to the Beranid Hills quest hub be broken, months later. If you want to talk about things that are frustratingly difficult in Vanguard, the death penalty would be pretty far down on the list.
People *are* looking for a challenge – 200k were looking for it the day Vanguard went live, and that’s even after all the scuttle about it being troubled. I’ve said it again and again, but there are lots of gems of content in this game that are challenging – and lots of fun. What drove people away is that the frustration of having to try to wade through all the issues with the game to see those gems. To say that people left because the death penalty was too stiff is oversimplifying and shows a lack of understanding about the game, which I’m realizing I probably have a little too much of right now.
/steps slowly away from the keyboard.